Sanctuary launches new podcast series with BRIC

Pieter Keushkerian is a communications intern at Sanctuary and a student at NYU’s Gallatin School

Pieter Keushkerian is a communications intern at Sanctuary and a student at NYU’s Gallatin School for Individualized Study, where he is majoring in Social and Political Theory relating to Human Rights.


Partnership with BRIC

In August 2016, Sanctuary partnered with BRIC, a community media arts organization based in Brooklyn, to develop a public service announcement. Working with Sanctuary staff members, Andrea Yeriazarian, Program Director of Children and Family Services at the Manhattan Family Justice Center (FJC) and Deborah Lee, Senior Staff Attorney with Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project at the Brooklyn (FJC), members of Sanctuary’s teen girls group shared how domestic violence had impacted their lives and how Sanctuary’s services enabled them to heal and thrive. By sharing their stories, they hoped to raise awareness and encourage other teens to reach out for help.

Thrilled by the success of the first PSA, Sanctuary teamed up with BRIC again this past summer to utilize the organization’s Media Share Grant, an in-kind grant aimed at helping Brooklyn-based and Brooklyn-affiliated nonprofits tell their unique story. Deborah and Andrea received free training and became certified in podcast production with the help of their BRIC mentor, Keisha. Both Andrea and Deborah learned numerous techniques and helpful tricks of the trade from the recording to the editing stages. All of their work culminated in Conversations, Sanctuary’s new client driven podcast.

The first of episode can be heard here.

Introducing Conversations

The first episode of Conversations focuses on the extent to which cultural norms impact individual behavior in abusive relationships. It begins with the story of Keziah, a seventeen-year-old survivor of domestic violence and one of the teenagers featured in the PSA. Keziah and her family are long-standing clients of Sanctuary and have received immigration assistance, counseling services, and economic empowerment support over the years. Keziah approached both Andrea and Deborah with the desire to interview other clients and survivors in order to get a better understanding of the origins and consequences of domestic violence.

“Keziah directed us in terms of structuring the podcast, and we were so happy to have been able to help her have this podcast conversation.”

For Sanctuary’s inaugural episode, Keziah chose to host a panel of survivors which included Maria, John and Shantae, all of whom had been affected by domestic violence and gender abuse in one way or another and were eager to share their personal narratives. Their shared perspectives and openness create a warm space in which healing and understanding are encouraged.

Future Goals

The ultimate goal of our new podcast series is to give survivors, who often avoid sharing their stories for fear of revealing their identity, a way to speak out. In Keziah’s words:

“Doing this podcast helped me to stop hiding behind my story. It helped me to realize that I was using my story to define me, and that I really don’t know who I am. It forced me to realize that I need to find myself and use my story to help others instead of hiding.”

Both Andrea and Deborah hope that this new series inspires others who have been impacted by domestic violence to share their stories on this new and exciting platform.

Adama Lee Bah, 22, in the Financial District of Manhattan on June 26, 2017. Bah, originally from Guinea, was 7 when she was forced to undergo FGM and she now works to help end the practice. (Benjamin Chasteen/The Epoch Times

I’m a survivor of female genital mutilation and I’m changing the world because of it

As a survivor of FGM, I deem it fit to create awareness on this harmful cultural practice affecting women and girls.

Where I am from, a girl is recognized by the following: Who is her father? Who is her husband?  Where are her children? Society believes these are the only stages in a girl’s life. Men and women spend their whole lives teaching their girls how to eat, drink, walk and subject their girls to female genital mutilation (FGM) and early marriage in the name of religion and culture.

I am from The Gambia; the smallest country in mainland Africa. We have a population of about two million people, 60% of whom are young people under the age of 24. Almost half of the population lives in abject poverty. In my country, women bear the weight of these challenges and endure all the injustices society has to offer despite the fact that our government signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and is also a signatory to the Beijing Declaration which has the singular purpose of promoting gender equality and empowerment of women around the world.

As a survivor of FGM, I believe it’s my duty to create awareness on this harmful cultural practice affecting women and girls. I would not have done all my activism both local and international without my father’s firm belief in girls’ empowerment through education. With all my experience and both formal and informal educational background, I decided to represent and speak for the voiceless.

Where I come from

I am the sixth child of my parents’ seven children, all of whom started school as early as 4 years old. I was the only one who started school at age 7 because my father was more interested in teaching me the Holy Quran first before enrolling me to school.  He wanted me to understand the fundamental principles of Islam and differentiate Islamic values from cultural values. My father made sure I was going to school and at the same time attending Arabic school.

At the age of 11, I memorized the Holy Quran and started studying Islamic Sharia law. I attended a Catholic middle school during the day, and in the evening I went for my Islamic studies. Going to a Catholic school made me an outcast in my society and during my Grade 9 exams, my Islamic teacher would keep me in the mosque until late hours before releasing me in order to prevent me from studying for my exams.  The only difference between other girls in my country at the time and me was that I had an advocate who went against all the odds to make sure I had the same opportunities boys had to reach their fullest potential.

Although my father was not able to protect me when my aunty kidnapped me and took me to the circumciser, he taught me the Holy Quran and made sure I attended school.  My father was called “Western” and was denied access to Muslim gatherings because he never asked me to wear hijab.  He was a disabled man and he relied on his wheelchair, but he worked very hard to empower my mother who took over his business after his stroke. Unlike many of my friends’ fathers, he believed a woman could be more than a housewife.

Finding my voice

In May 2011, I was appointed as the head girl of Nusrat Senior Secondary School. One of my many responsibilities was to work with the staff to improve girls’ academic performance. In my research, I discovered most of the girls in my school were betrothed to be married. Some faced domestic violence, and others were victims of teenage pregnancy. As a result, they were often expelled while the perpetrators continued to go to school.

With the help of my father and the school administration, I organized an All Girls Conference for 700 girls from different schools in the greater Banjul (the capital city) area. This event served as a platform for girls from different backgrounds to come together and discuss issues hindering their performance in school with mentors, counseling experts, and peer health educators. At the end of the meeting, the participants came up with a pledge. My school helped me send it to the Vice President, the Office of Women’s Affairs and the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education and I was granted audience by the Minister of Basic Education and a representative from the Office of the Vice President for follow ups on the issues raised by the girls at the conference.

I also made a video about early marriage in the Gambia with the support of my father, Young People in the Media, and The Gambia Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices-Access Gambia (GAMCOTRA). Working with GAMCOTRA, I went to rural Gambia where I spoke with victims of early marriage and learned the challenges they face in their daily lives.

The All Girls Conference and my video helped me launch a gender sensitization curriculum for young people to address and prevent gender-based violence in all schools and communities together with the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education.

Challenging my culture

After I graduated from high school in August 2013, I was elected President of Young People in the Media, an organization which aims to use media to create a greater understanding of the developmental issues facing children and young people and to give youth the opportunity to express their feelings and aspirations. I decided to start a radio talk show to address issues faced by young people, especially girls. On the show, I challenged religious leaders who were preaching that FGM is written in the Quran and that a woman’s place is in her husband’s house. I studied the Quran for twelve years, and there is no chapter where Allah says a woman needs to be mutilated or a woman should not speak up.

In June 2013, I was invited to Abuja, Nigeria by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to speak on the role of young people in media and information literacy. After this meeting, I organized a capacity building training titled “Media Literacy: Incorporating Child Rights in a Changing Information Age.” The goal was to promote freedom of expression, access to the information youth need in order to be educated about technology, and to show them how they can use it to their advantage.

In December 2013, UNESCO organized the first Global Alliance on Media Information Literacy and Gender in Bangkok, Thailand. The main purpose of this event was to promote gender equality in the media. I was invited to participate as the UNESCO youth representative in the Global Alliance for Media and Information Literacy. I advocated for the inclusion of media and information literacy in school curricula because our President, who came to power through coup d’état in 1994, did not support freedom of the press.

With the support of UNESCO and the American Embassy in Banjul, my organization was able to train journalists and social media activists on how to engage people on online platforms, create online videos, and write blogs. The outcome of this was clear in our 2016 presidential election during which online media platforms were flooded with content.

How I will change the world

When my father died in 2014, his younger brother stepped in. He wanted to inherit my mother and he threatened to mutilate me a second time and marry me off, but my mom refused.

I fled to the United States and upon my arrival, I connected with Pooja Asnani, a lawyer at Sanctuary for Families. Pooja told me about Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, an option for young people who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned. Pooja represented me in Family Court and helped me obtain the orders I needed to apply for legal permanent resident status. In the summer of 2015, I received my green card thanks to Pooja and Sanctuary’s help.

These days I am pretty busy. As a Youth Representative on the UN Communications Coordination Committee’s Board of Directors, I represent the voices of the young and bring the attention of the Council to issues affecting young people. I stay connected to Sanctuary through their FGM Coalition. As head of the Coalition’s Youth Advocacy Committee I work with members to raise awareness about the dangers of FGM in New York’s African communities.

I am also working with Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Dr. Masood Katamee. He is a clinical professor at the New York School of Medicine and the founder of a gynecology and fertility research foundation, and together we are organizing a conference on June 22nd at the UN Headquarters with the theme Eradicating Harmful Cultural Practices Impacting Women’s and Girl’s Health and Well-being.

I am additionally working with UNESCO Paris to develop an app that will enable students in Africa to access library resources on their smartphones so that they don’t have to travel long distances in order to go to their school library. I am building this app based on my experience and the experiences of many young people in developing countries.

This fall, I plan to attend college. I want to study Women’s and Gender Studies because I will be able to learn not only about gender issues, but about sexuality, social class, ethnicity, race, and nationality. Studying the consequences of inequality in this way can help us shape a better world.

In the future, I plan to work with UN organizations like UN Women to encourage men to advocate for women’s equality.

I know I can influence change. By sharing my experiences as an African girl with the world, I believe I can create a difference in the lives of young people everywhere.

First Year Skadden Attorney Wins Five Year Order of Protection for Survivor of Domestic Violence

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring Tansy Woan, a litigation associate at Skadden, for her pro bono work on behalf of Ms. G, a woman who was seeking a full five-year order of protection against her husband, who subjected her to severe physical, sexual, and emotional abuse during their relationship.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring Tansy Woan, a litigation associate at Skadden, for her pro bono work on behalf of Ms. T, a woman who was seeking a full five-year order of protection against her husband, who subjected her to severe physical, sexual, and emotional abuse during their relationship.

From the Dominican Republic to Maryland

Just over four years ago, Ms. T, then 21-years old and living in the Dominican Republic, thought that she had met the love of her life when she came across Mr. S, a charming older American man in his 30s. They hit it off immediately and began dating.

They continued to date long distance after he returned to the United States. As their relationship progressed, Mr. S asked Ms. T to consider moving to the United States to be with him. She agreed and moved in with him in Maryland, and they were engaged shortly thereafter. That was when Ms. T’s life shattered. 

After Ms. T moved to Maryland, Mr. S became a different person. He became increasingly angry with her and started yelling at her and threatening her. He then began physically abusing her. Six months into their relationship, his violence intensified to severe sexual abuse and threats against Ms. T’s life with a firearm that Mr. S kept in their shared bedroom. Ms. T was living in constant fear, with no friends or family nearby and no means of support. When the abuse became too much for her to bear, Ms. T fled to New York City and found Sanctuary for Families. Sanctuary assisted Ms. T in obtaining a temporary order of protection against Mr. S.  But Ms. T still needed a full and final five-year order of protection, and Sanctuary turned to Skadden for assistance.

Tansy Woan steps in

twTansy Woan, then a newly-minted first year associate at Skadden, immediately stepped in.  Tansy had worked on domestic violence cases when she was in college, and had hoped that once she began practicing, she could incorporate her passion into her legal practice as well.  The March 2014 e-mail that came across her inbox, seeking an attorney interested in working on Ms. T’s order of protection application pro bono, seemed almost fortuitous and Tansy jumped at the opportunity.

Thus began an 18-month long bench trial in Bronx Family Court.  Determined to prove Mr. S’s cruelty, Tansy, under the guidance of Dara Sheinfeld, Sanctuary’s Legal Director at the Bronx and Manhattan Family Justice Centers, skillfully advocated for Ms. T throughout the trial.  Tansy gently elicited Ms. T’s story during her emotional direct examination.  And she skillfully handled the long and challenging cross-examination of Mr. S, carefully highlighting the many inconsistencies in his testimony, and the inconsistencies between his testimony and the evidence, succeeding in badly damaging his credibility. According to Dara, Tansy was “fierce during cross examination,” in spite of Mr. S’s aggressive and unpleasant demeanor during the trial.

Tansy’s skilled advocacy resulted in the granting of a full and final five-year order of protection for Ms. T. Tansy’s effective representation was achieved in no small part because of her ability to connect and establish trust with Ms. T. It was extraordinarily difficult and re-traumatizing for Ms. T to recount her difficult story, both during prep sessions and at trial. The process of having to go through all the details was excruciating and emotional, and it was only with Tansy’s ability to comfort Ms. T and create a safe space for her to tell her story that Ms. T was able to do so. As Dara explained, Tansy showed “extraordinary empathy” for Ms. T, “always giving her the time she needed to deal with the feelings and emotions that trial preparation evoked.” And as Tansy reflected, “A lot of the advocacy that I did was just to comfort her, and to give her strength. My job wasn’t just to prepare for trial, it was to be there for her.”

Reflections and advice

In April 2016, after a long and drawn out trial, and shortly after Tansy left Skadden for a judicial clerkship, Ms. T received the protection for which she had fought so desperately. The Family Court granted Ms. T a full and final five-year order of protection, the longest possible under the law. Tansy was ecstatic with the outcome.

“It was an honor to have this experience, and to help Ms. T work through a very difficult period of time.  Not only was I doing a full-blown trial with Sanctuary as a first year associate, but I was giving Ms. T the chance to have her side of the story heard, and to help her fight back against this man who terrified her for years.  It felt so good to tell her that it was all worth it, and to say to her:  ‘Your courage got you through this.’”

Tansy reiterated that she was only able to do what she did because of the support that she received from Sanctuary, particularly Dara:

“Dara was amazing.  She was there with me at every client meeting and every court appearance, and always made herself available to answer any questions I had, no matter how often or what time of day.   Without her, I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through the trial – she helped me practice my cross examinations, my openings, everything, really.  It was my first trial ever and she really helped me to feel at ease.  I can’t imagine having gotten through it without her.  I can’t thank her and Sanctuary enough for all of the mentoring, support, and encouragement they have provided.  It is so inspiring to work with someone as passionate as Dara.”

Tansy also marveled at how Skadden rallied the full weight of their resources behind Ms. T. Other attorneys at the firm, including Steve Kolleeny, Jay Kasner, Scott Musoff, Lauren Aguiar, and Rob Fumerton, took time out of their busy schedules to offer advice and guidance and to run through arguments.  Steve, who was the Skadden attorney overseeing Tansy’s representation of Ms. T, was particularly instrumental during the case. Tansy reminisced, “He was phenomenal, so incredibly busy, but always made time to help this anxious first year associate.” Tansy had wanted nothing more than for Steve to see the trial through, to show him that all of the hard work that went into it eventually paid off, but to everyone’s great loss, Steve passed away in September 2014.

With Tansy now back from her clerkship at Skadden, she is even more determined to take on another domestic violence matter for Sanctuary.  She even has some advice for future young attorneys hoping to make a true difference in the life of another:  “Prepare for the unexpected.  Know your facts and the law by heart.  And, above all, remember to be human.  So much of Ms. T’s testimony required that she maintain her cool under pressure, and that she trust me.  For me to gain her trust, and to be there for her, required that I be so much more than an attorney.” 

Ms. T was incredibly grateful and thrilled with the outcome:

“[Tansy] earned my trust and respect for the way and dedication with which [she] perform[ed] [her] work.  Tansy was always there listening to my story and looking for the best way to help me get my order of protection.  I felt very privileged that among the many cases she could work on[,] [that she chose] mine the way [she] did.  [A]ll I can say is thank you very much and God bless her and allow her to continue to have success in her work.”

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 19, 2016 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor Tansy’s outstanding pro bono work. Learn more about the event here.  If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.

Etienne Barg-Townsend is Senior Legal Counsel at KGS-Alpha Capital Markets, L.P., a New York-based institutional fixed income broker-dealer.  She was formerly a litigation associate at Shearman & Sterling LLP, Cahill Gordon & Reindel, LLP, and Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP.  She has worked on several pro bono matters with Sanctuary, and is in the process of developing a pro bono program at KGS-Alpha.  She is a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and is Co-Chair of this year’s Above & Beyond gala. 

 

Reed Smith Attorneys Exhibit Great Skill and Persistence in Complicated Custody Case

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of pro bono attorneys at Reed Smith LLP for their bono work in a challenging custody matter.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a dynamic duo from Reed Smith for their pro bono work in a challenging custody matter.  The team was led by associate Brandon Cunningham and Jeff Glatzer, a retired partner from Reed Smith who is currently in private practice.

As lawyers, we are trained to be zealous advocates ready to endure lengthy legal battles. However, by the time a client seeks representation, she has often already endured a difficult path paved with grief, abuse and conflict behind her — long before legal advocacy even begins. Jeff and Brandon are extraordinary examples of the persistence, dedication, respect and care that serves Sanctuary clients beyond the courtroom.

cunninghambdPro Bono Council co-chair Mia Marie White talks with Brandon Cunningham about the team’s experience working with Sanctuary on the matter.

Mia: Tell us about the work you did for Sanctuary.

Brandon:  Our case was a custody matter that was complicated by the dynamics of domestic violence.  Following a brutal dispute shortly after the child was born, the mother was pressured to give up custody of her little boy to his father.  But things were not going well for the child, and his father was failing to get him the help he needed.  The father took actions to undermine our client’s relationship with the child and infringe on her visitation rights.  Our objective was to regain custody rights for our client and improve her situation in the meantime.

Mia: I understand that you were engaged in representation for almost three years.

Brandon:  Yes, we worked on the case for nearly three years.  We spent an enormous amount of time documenting the issues the child was experiencing and the evidence of the father’s malfeasance.  We drafted filings relating to the father’s failure to abide by the visitation orders in place, negotiated increased visitation rights for our client, and prepared for trial, including a forensic examination.

All of the work we did was in concert and collaboration with Sanctuary’s Legal Director at the Bronx and Manhattan Family Justice Centers, Dara Sheinfeld, without whose invaluable experience and counsel we could not have achieved what we did.

Mia: How did you become involved with this case?

Brandon: The case came to us via Sanctuary for Families in May 2013.  Jeff had previously expressed an interest in collaborating on a pro bono matter with Sanctuary, and I worked with Sanctuary in law school through the Courtroom Advocates Program, advocating for Orders of Protection for battered women. Following an initial intake meeting with the client, we were impressed with the gravity of the situation and eager to help; there was clearly a woman, and even more so a child, in real need of our help.

Mia: What is the status of the case now?

Brandon: We and Sanctuary are no longer her counsel, so we do not know the status of the case.  This case really showed the toll that litigation, especially trial preparation, can take on already traumatized clients. This was the second time that the client had, for all purposes, to make the difficult choice to stop fighting for her son in court – both times because of the intense pressures of litigation.

Mia: Despite that you are no longer engaged in representation, several positive outcomes were achieved. Can you share some examples of those?

Brandon: While we sadly had to withdraw from representing this client because she no longer wanted to pursue her case vigorously, we understand and respect her decision. One outcome is that we significantly improved her visitation rights, more than doubling the time she is now able to share with her son.  Perhaps most importantly, we were also able to advocate and obtain medical and therapeutic help for her son, which he urgently needed.

Mia:  It is often said that Sanctuary is unique because of its holistic approach to client service. Did you find that you and Sanctuary were able to provide support outside of the courtroom?

Brandon: A great deal of our work took place outside of the courtroom and after working hours.  There were instances of receiving urgent calls on Saturday morning from the police precinct, or late at night to resolve ongoing visitation issues.  We also spent a great deal of time with the client working through the challenges inherent in her custody setup and in her relationship with the father and the child.  Finally, our legal work and strategy were strongly influenced by what the client was and was not able to work with and compromise on; a holistic approach was necessary to reconcile those aspects as much as possible.

Mia: It is incredibly difficult to advocate for custody rights after having (seemingly) voluntarily relinquished custody, which is one of the many ways that domestic violence manifests against the abused parent. What were some of the other hurdles or challenges you faced?

Brandon: The relationship between our client and the child’s father was deeply unpleasant; the father would regularly send abusive, belittling screeds full of personal attacks to our client and also to us.  For a while, the father was pro se, which made things even worse.  There were numerous instances in which reasonable compromises were met with impasse because the parties could not get past their personal feelings.

Mia: How has Reed Smith supported your work with Sanctuary?

Brandon: Reed Smith takes pro bono seriously and provided all the resources we could ever have needed.  The attorney hours we committed to this case over the course of three years were immense, in addition to the support staff assistance with filings, assembling of materials, etc.

In addition, Jeff was able to join in the case as a result of the firm’s participation in the New York State Attorney Emeritus program, which enables retired partners to continue to participate in pro bono matters through the firm.  This program is fantastic for pro bono generally, given the highly experienced lawyers with time to contribute that the program brings into the fold.

Mia: What is your practice area? Is it different from the subject-matter of the case?

Brandon: Jeff’s primary experience has been as a bankruptcy lawyer and commercial litigator, and I am a white collar crime and government investigations lawyer.  So yes—worlds away from family court and custody disputes.

Mia: Do you have any lessons or takeaways you’d like to share? Has working on this case helped you grow as a lawyer?

Brandon: This was definitely a very challenging case, with a lot of difficult interpersonal dynamics to manage and barriers to overcome.  In the end, we felt we had done as much as we possibly could for the client, even though that didn’t involve taking her case to trial.  We learned a great deal about dealing with clients who are deeply emotionally involved in the subject matter of the case, about dealing with hostile and legally unsophisticated adversaries, and about the challenges faced by abused women trying to assert their rights.  Working with and learning from a lawyer of Dara Sheinfeld’s caliber was particularly valuable for a younger attorney such as myself and a senior lawyer without experience in custody matters.

Mia: Is there anything else would you like to share?

We would like to thank Dara, and Sanctuary for Families generally, for the opportunity to work on such a rewarding case.  And we encourage all attorneys to reach out to Sanctuary for Families and ask how they can contribute, even if they have no experience in gender violence or family law.

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 19, 2016 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor Brandon and Jeff’s outstanding pro bono work. Learn more about the event here.  If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.

Mia is a Pro Bono Council Co-Chair for Sanctuary and a senior associate in the intellectual property and information technology (IP/IT) practice group of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in New York.